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C. J. Allen

The Privacy of Everyone

John Ashbery - Where Shall I Wander (Carcanet £7. 95),
Selected Prose
edited by Eugene Richie (Carcanet £14. 95)

In the 1980s I worked in an office above a bookshop. Fortunately (for me) it was a very incompetently managed office and so I was sometimes able to sneak downstairs in the afternoons and mooch around the shop for a while. It was there that I first encountered the poetry of John Ashbery. I’d heard of Ashbery, I knew he was considered – at least by some – as an important contemporary poet, and I also knew he’d been the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, but I’d never actually read any of his poems. So when I picked up a copy of
As We Know, opened it at random and read:

Of how the current ran in, and turned
In the climate of the indecent moment
And became an act,
I may not tell


… I was confused. What on earth was going on here? What was this ‘current’ and how did it relate to the ‘climate of the indecent moment’ (whatever that was)? I tried other poems; they didn’t make any sense to me either. He’d won the Pulitzer Prize, for this sort of thing? I slunk back to work.

Months later I happened upon another book by Ashbery,
Three Poems, which (of course) consisted of three prose pieces. The first of these prose-poems, ‘The New Spirit’, begins

I thought I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave it all out would be another, and truer, way.

Over time I came to see that passage as a sort of ‘way in’ to the poems. Those who don’t connect with Ashbery’s poetry would probably find that everything they’re used to in a poem is left out – the meaning, the music, the sense of resolution and so on. But, for his admirers, what he’d left out were the tired poetic conventions, the dull patter, the stale, confessional voice full of highfalutin metaphor. Instead we get a sort of talking-to-oneself, in a funny, disjunctive, and altogether more liberated and engaging way.

But the interiority of Ashbery’s poetry isn’t just another version of the standard-issue literary interior monologue. It’s something much more slippery and sparkly, it’s more allusive and illusive. And it is one his poetry’s chief glories. ‘I don’t think my poetry is inaccessible,’ he once said in an interview, ‘people say it’s very private, but I think it’s about the privacy of everyone.’ In a recent New York Times article the author and critic Charles McGrath gave additional substance to this insight when he pointed out ‘… all the bric-a-brac we carry around in the attic of our minds, imagery, quotations, movie dialogue, advertising jingles, song lyrics, snatches of overheard conversation’ that turns up in a John Ashbery poem. For instance, who else but Ashbery would open a poem with

Attention, shoppers.

It’s part of the audio-detritus of the everyday. But it isn’t only about ‘found’ language or post-modern textual collage, he follows up with

…. From within the inverted

commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering

watermarks this time of day.

Such disparities as these force us to reconsider the given-ness of language, make us think twice about what we’re reading and hearing, and put us in touch with a remarkable contemporary linguistic music. And there can be no question about it: Ashbery’s poems are exquisitely musical. In fact ever since I first heard John Ashbery reading his poems, his slightly campy, kooky voice has continued to sound for me through his poems. In the same way that
Finnegans Wake starts to become that bit more comprehensible when read out loud (in a Dublin accent, if you can manage it) then even the most apparently ‘resistant’ of John Ashbery’s poems will begin to open up when you actually hear the words spoken. This is because the essence and complexity of his poetry is inextricably connected to its music; if you get one then the rest comes free.

Where Shall I Wander is characteristically slangy and homespun as well as frequently strange and delightfully bewildering. ‘I wanted to stretch the bond between language and communication, but not to sever it,’ he said in 1995, and Ashbery has remained true to that. The poems in this volume aren’t at all about taking a hammer to grammar and syntax, rather they are there to open up poetry to new areas of meaning. Sometimes, it’s as if he lets the language wander wherever it wants to, while the poet trots companionably along beside it.

I enjoy biographies and bibliographies,
and cultural studies. As for music, my tastes
run to Liszt’s Consolations, especially the flatter ones,
though I’ve never been consoled by them. Well, once maybe.

Novelty Love Trot)

There’s a quiet, almost muted register at times, and a feeling of ‘variations on a theme’ rather than any sort of grand exposition. This is especially true of the handful of prose poems in the book. It’s a difficult form for the reader, I think, especially when Ashbery’s familiar twists and turns of authorial voice combine with substantial un-paragraphed slabs of text. But, one of the (many) good and compelling things about Ashbery’s poetry is that it often takes a little familiarity before its connections to the reader (and the reader’s connections to it) start to make themselves known.

Thematically, much of the book seems to have a feeling of loss and impinging mortality. The very first poem ‘Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse’ begins

We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.

And in another poem we learn that

… like all good things
life tends to go on too long

But the resolution (if that’s what you can call it, I think it might be truer to say ‘the place where the poems wind up’) is never gloomy, it’s often bravely matter-of-fact.

There’s no turning back the man says,
the one waiting to take the tickets at the top
of the gangplank. Still, in the past
we could always wait a little. Indeed,
we are waiting now. That’s what happens.

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To a certain extent, the reviews, essays, introductions and addresses and sundry other pieces of journalism that make up
Selected Prose share this matter-of-factness. They stretch from 1957 to 2004 and deal mostly with literary topics, although there are a few notable art criticism pieces and a marvellously funny spoof interview between Ashbery and Kenneth Koch; all irresistible reading for the Ashbery enthusiast. There are also outstanding essays on Gertrude Stein and Raymond Roussel (the blurb calls them ‘contemporary classics’) as well as meditations on the work of Artaud and (the unconscionably neglected English poet) Nicholas Moore. The style is clear and journalistically competent, one might even say slightly conservative, and although not in any way buttoned-up, the variations in tonal register and linguistic high-jinx that are so evident in his poetry do not feature in Ashbery’s prose writings. That said, it’s no less fun to read, most of the time rejoicing in a quietly refined, amused and amusingly intelligent, almost avuncular tone. But the gentle pleasures of the prose aside, one of the main reasons why it’s so good to have this book is because it adds much to our understanding of John Ashbery’s understanding of poetry. This, for example, is from a tiny piece which appeared on the dust jacket of Lee Harwood’s 1968 collection The White Room:

The … poetry I like best has [a] self-effacing, translucent quality. Self-effacing not from modesty, but because it is going somewhere and has no time to consider itself.

Whilst this is the acme of astuteness as far as Lee Harwood’s poems are concerned, it also gives away something of the technical/aesthetic aspirations of Ashbery’s poems. If there’s such a thing as a definition of what good poetry should be, maybe this is it.

In an interview with poet and critic Mark Ford in 2002, Ashbery remarked that …‘The worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about.’ This becomes something of a recurring theme in
Selected Prose. In a lecture given at the Shirayuri Women’s University in Tokyo - where he had been asked to speak on what does appear to be the rather daunting topic of ‘Poetical Phenomenology and Ashbery Himself’ - he starts off in typically self-effacing manner:

I have been asked to discuss two topics I know very little about: one is ‘poetical phenomenology’, the other is ‘Ashbery himself’. It is true I might be expected to know something about them since poetry is a kind of phenomenology … and I am probably a poet. In addition to which, I am also ‘Ashbery myself’ if not ‘himself’. But it’s also true that I know relatively little about poetry, despite or perhaps because of having been a poet for almost half a century. How can this be?

As he goes on to explain:

[P]erhaps … being a poet or making poetry somehow precludes the most intimate knowledge of what poetry is, of how it affects people other than the poet.

In spite of his dissembling insistence that he really doesn’t know what to say,
Selected Prose tells us plenty about the poet and his poems; it’s just that it does it in a very light, disarming and non-ponderous, non-hectoring sort of way. I recommend interested readers turn first to his Robert Frost Memorial Address – which is the most incisive and (at about five pages) succinct introduction to his work that I’ve yet come across.

The how and the why of poetry crop up again and again in
Selected Prose, and there are particularly fine and illuminating pieces on Marianne Moore, F. T. Prince, A. R. Ammons, Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. In a review of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems Ashbery explains his fascination with and admiration of her poetry:

Description and meaning, text and ornament, subject and object, the visible world and the poet’s consciousness fuse together to form a substance that is indescribable and a continuing joy, and one returns to it again and again, ravished and unsatisfied.

I think many sympathetic readers of Ashbery’s own work would find those swirled together dualities - of the perceived and the perceiver, the sense of being carried away and yet left wanting more - describe what underlies their own continuing engagement with his poetry.

In his late seventies he has moved away from the occasional grand set-pieces of his earlier books, and although he continues to face up to the same big themes, he does so with a quirkiness, a playfulness and, despite his reputation for difficulty and obscurity, a sometimes heartbreaking directness. His work marries a master’s confidence of form with a wry, ludic quality that is nowhere else in contemporary poetry. Wherever he’s wont to wander, we’d be foolish not to follow.

Copyright © C.J. Allen, 2005.